In the 1970s and early 1980s, one of the most consistent clubs in the old First Division was Ipswich Town, then managed by Sir Bobby Robson. Constantly finishing in the top six in the table, European football was a regular staple of the Portman Road faithful’s diet, as well as sustained title pushes and glory in the cup competitions.
How incongruous, then, to see Ipswich now struggling in the depths of League One, or the Third Division in old money.
Although Ipswich have long been absent from the top table of English football – next year will see twenty years outside the top flight – the initial plummet from the heights of the game to the Second Division took place fairly rapidly nearly four decades ago with the departure of Sir Bobby from the managerial hot seat.
Before we take a look at this particular decline, it is perhaps worth at least a cursory glance at events following the success of Ipswich’s only ever title win. Appointing Sir Alf Ramsey as manager in 1955 with the club mired in the Third Division was a masterstroke. Promotion to the Second Division was achieved in two years, with further graduation coming in 1961 to the top flight, and if this progress was heady then what was to follow a year later was truly remarkable.
Taking on all-comers, Ipswich under Sir Alf swept to the title at the first attempt and in their first-ever season in the First Division.
However, the bubble was not long in bursting. The season following the title success was poor and Ipswich spent large swathes of it fighting relegation before finally pulling clear of the drop zone in April 1963. By now, Sir Alf had officially left the club to take up the challenge of managing England.
His ultimate successor, Jackie Milburn, turned out to be an unmitigated disaster and Ipswich were relegated a year later, conceding 121 league goals in 42 matches.
Fast forward to 1969 and Ipswich Town were back in the top division under the management of Bill McGarry. When McGarry left to manage Wolves, the Ipswich board turned to the recently sacked ex-Fulham manager, Bobby Robson as a replacement. This too turned out to be an inspirational appointment.
Despite a rocky opening period when Ipswich could finish no higher than 13th in Robson’s first three seasons, the Ipswich board stood by their man and in the next ten seasons at the helm, Robson guided Ipswich to seven top-four and nine top-six positions. Two major trophies in the shape of the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA three years later were secured, and in total Ipswich qualified for Europe no less than nine times.
Four times Ipswich seriously challenged for the league title. In 1975 and 1977, the club fell away to finish in third place after looking favourites to take the title as spring bloomed. Another third-place finish was secured in 1980 – although this was a more distant finish behind Manchester United and Liverpool – and in 1981 and 1982 the Suffolk side came even closer with runners-up positions behind Aston Villa and Liverpool respectively.
In 1974-75 Ipswich had what was recognised as the best side in the country with the marauding Kevin Beattie at his imperious best. Rated by Sir Bobby as the best English player he ever managed and one of the best he had ever seen, Beattie was a colossus and at the age of 18 was compared with Duncan Edwards by none other than Sir Bobby Charlton.
In with a chance of the “Double” of league and FA Cup as spring 1975 approached, Ipswich were cruelly undone by the travelling circus that was the “Clive Thomas Referring Show” in the FA Cup semi-final replay at Stamford Bridge against West Ham when two perfectly good goals were disallowed in a 2-1 defeat. A poor run-in saw Ipswich also concede defeat in the battle for league honours and thus end the season empty-handed.
The one poor league season of the latter part of Sir Bobby Robson’s Portman Road managerial reign came in 1977-78 when barely twelve months after pushing Liverpool and Manchester City all the way for the league title the best the side could manage was an 18th place finish. This was a particularly injury-ridden campaign for the blues and this had a great bearing on the abject league position, but at least great consolation was to be had in the FA Cup. A kind draw saw Ipswich battle through to a Highbury showdown with fancied West Bromwich Albion in the semi-finals, where a 3-1 victory propelled Town into the final against Arsenal.
Because of Ipswich’s poor league showing, Arsenal were the overwhelming favourites but in an upset for the form book, a single Roger Obsborn goal sufficed and secured the cup for the first and as yet only time in the club’s history.
1980-81 once again saw Ipswich challenge for the league and cup double, and with progress in the UEFA Cup thrown into the mix, Ipswich were actually in with a decent chance of a treble. A relatively small squad suffered from injuries at a crucial time in the season and an overload of fixtures, and once again the title slipped from Ipswich’s fingers when it seemed there for the taking. The FA Cup semi-final was also lost to Manchester City in extra time and so that just left the UEFA Cup to play for.
In six previous seasons in Europe, Ipswich had been involved in some stirring matches and had twice reached the quarter-final stages. In 1974 the UEFA Cup last eight was to prove the pinnacle for Town, and five years later it was the same stage of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. In 1981, however, Ipswich went all the way to a two-legged final against AZ Alkmaar of Holland. An entertaining 180 minutes ensued and despite a scare in the second leg, Ipswich held on for a 6-5 aggregate victory.
1981-82 was to prove to be Sir Bobby Robson’s last in charge at the club as he was finally tempted away from Portman Road. While he had previously resisted overtures from clubs such as Everton and Manchester United, the lure of replacing Ron Greenwood as England manager was just too tempting to resist.
For a time it looked as if Town and Robson would finally break their title voodoo as they once again led the way going into the last weeks of the season. Once again, however, the pace could not be maintained and Liverpool, on a tremendous charge, caught and overhauled them.
At the end of the season, largely upon the recommendation of Sir Bobby, his assistant, Bobby Ferguson, was offered the manager’s job. Four seasons later, the club was relegated to the Second Division.
The decline was reasonably rapid as Ipswich went from title challengers in 1982 to a mid-table finish twelve months later. The Ipswich board stood by Ferguson, but rather than experiencing a mere blip, fortunes continued to deteriorate and after two successful battles against relegation in 1984 and 1985, the club finally disappeared through the trap door the following year.
Ferguson and Ipswich were unlucky in the sense that the great team of Robson’s was breaking up and it was proving very difficult to replace the outward bound players. Stalwarts of the side such as Arnold Muhren and Mick Mills left shortly after Robson’s departure, and other luminaries such as John Wark, Alan Brazil, Paul Mariner and Frans Thijssen were soon to follow them out of the door.
Economically, Ipswich were feeling the pinch due in part to an undertaking to build a new stand. It was thought that maintained success would keep gates high and that this together with a high profile sale or two, would ensure the new stand did not become a burden. However, there was an economic downturn in the game at the time and the bottom dropped out of the transfer market. This, combined with falling gates, spelt financial hardships and players started looking for higher salaries elsewhere.
So it came to pass that relegation was confirmed in May 1986 and when immediate promotion was not secured a year later, the board decided to not renew Bobby Ferguson’s contract.
It was to be another six years before Ipswich’s top-flight status was restored when John Lyall led the Blues to promotion and membership of the inaugural Premier League in 1992. Three years later another relegation was suffered and there then followed a further five years in the second flight – now labelled the First Division.
In 2000, Ipswich were promoted via the play-offs under former player, George Burley, and were tipped by many to struggle and possibly even suffer an immediate relegation. Confounding the critics, Ipswich enjoyed an excellent 2000-01 season and actually challenged for a Champions League place right up to the last day of the season before finishing a more than creditable fifth and taking a UEFA Cup spot.
Unfortunately, for the third time in forty years, Ipswich failed to build on this progress and once again suffered a rapid demise as they endured a terrible 2001-02 season which culminated in an 18th place finish and demotion back to the First Division.
Twenty years of struggles and false starts have since ensued, and although play-off finals have been reached and lost, the Premiership has remained out of reach. In 2019 further ignominy was suffered when the club was relegated to the third flight for the first time in over sixty years.